Counting the Dead

No one is talking about the Dead.
We’re just counting them.
Each day there are more and we think
it can’t get any worse, until they don’t
come back. So we keep counting the Dead.

People made memorials for the Dead
of 2001. Their names are etched in stone.
You can read them on the Internet.
At some point they were read aloud.
But that was only 2,600 Dead. .

We mourned. We wept and flew the flag
and vowed revenge. We didn’t understand
that Death is never satisfied.
We should start reading names today.
Too many Dead to carve in stone this time.

But we don’t call the Dead by name
or say what was done with their bodies,
memories, or redeemed of the time
they should have had to wait as days
of quiet life and love pass by.

We who are dying now will learn
the patience of stucco and sunlight
on glass. Some of us refuse.
There is no one they love enough
to sit in a room with their dust and be still.

J. Kyle Kimberlin
Creative Commons Licensed

Kevin Webb

I’ve just learned through Facebook that my childhood friend and classmate Keven Webb has passed away. Kevin worked for the US State Department and all I know so far is that he died at his embassy post in Madagascar.

I wish I knew more about Kevin. I know he loved to travel, enjoyed music and comedy. He didn’t join in the chaotic political tribalism and hysterical celebration of random opinion that our culture is devolving to; he kept his head above the fray and stayed positive. He shared what he loved, not what he hated. Which I thought showed integrity, self-knowledge, and mature circumspection.

His life between school and middle age in social media is largely a mystery to me because we didn’t keep in touch. And I think that’s unfortunate. We didn’t go all through school together; Kevin went to high school somewhere else. Those who’ve known him as an adult have likely known him as quiet but friendly and compassionate. We don’t really change, you know? His friends in recent times have my sympathy, and in a sense, my envy.

We didn’t finish the race together but we started it just a few feet apart. Kevin is second row, far right. I’m second row, third from the left.

… lessons done, my friend.

Mrs Wilsons Class

Mrs. Lottie Wilson’s kindergarten class, Canalino School, 1966-1967.

Forever Dog

If I could choose
the last thing, I wonder.
The last thing I would ever see.
You understand me: I mean the last thing
I would see before I die. It should be
wonderful, like a bird. No, a bird
would never remember.
A dog.

A dog running.
A little dog running to me.
A dog laughing and running.
I wish for a dog running and watching
the small birds alighting in the grass.
A dog of my own forever, just
a dog forever and ever.
My dog.

 

J. Kyle Kimberlin
Creative Commons Licensed

Sitting in the drive-through of the bank today, I looked up between the buildings and saw a gull catch a gust of wind. I thought, What if that was the last thing I ever saw? It’s beautiful. What if people could plan ahead and choose their last vision. The poem began forming in the next minute or two, so that I had to pull over and start scribbling it in my handy pocket notebook. Jack London was right:

“Keep a notebook. Travel with it, eat with it, sleep with it. Slap into it every stray thought that flutters up into your brain. Cheap paper is less perishable than gray matter, and lead pencil markings endure longer than memory.”

Now I wonder, friends, what would be your choice? What would be the image you’d like to carry with you into eternity? Feel free to leave a comment or create your own expression and share a link to it.

A Way With Words

“It’s good. I like it. You sure have a way with words.”
“Thanks.”
“What does it mean?”

That always makes me smile, and a couple of answers pop to mind: “How the hell would I know? I only wrote it.” Or perhaps, “Well what does it mean to you?” Not good. People want an answer; they want clarity and feel entitled to it. But maybe I’m not the right person to answer the question. Maybe they’re not the right person to ask it.

If a cook is exploring a new recipe and asks you to try the dish, you might say Thank You, and report that you enjoyed it or not. But you don’t lay your napkin neatly on the table and say, “Gee that was yummy. What was it supposed to taste like?”

You probably know what Stephen King wrote in his book On Writing, that writing can be a kind of telepathy, a psychic connection of Meaning between two minds, across time and space. Or something to that effect. I have cited that postulate before in this blog, but I’m skeptical.

Let’s imagine I sit down with my copy of The Complete Poems of Robert Frost, a cup of coffee, and with my vague memories of my college studies in English. And I turn to my favorite poem – which is everybody’s favorite poem:

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.


What does it mean? It’s one of those poems that often gets called “deceptively simple,” and it’s true. Most people who read it are very much deceived. Robert Frost died when I was 2, so we can never know. …Well that’s not true. We don’t need to ask the artist, we can explore the art for ourselves. Let’s take a couple of jabs at it.

  1. Winter is peaceful. Horses are cool. It’s nice to live in the country and use words like “village.” Back in the 1920s, queer meant strange, perplexing. And we have to keep moving and get our chores done before we can go to bed.
  1. The woods are a metaphor of the psyche, which stands apart from tangible life – the home in the village. The falling snow is the passage of time. As we grow older (the nights grow longer and darker), the dark woods of death – the event horizon of consciousness – seem more real, impending. We pause to consider mortality. The woods are lovely: we have a yearning for the peace of our inevitable passage into the woods. Then there are the harness bells; for whom do the bells toll?

If I’m being honest, it’s always been simply a poem about quietude and peace for me. It reminds me of Christmas, with the bells and the snow and the darkness evening being Winter Solstice. But if I were pressed for deeper meaning, I’d say it’s a rich and elaborate poem about death and the awareness of death; the darkness beyond the lights of the town for all of us.

Around the same time, e e cummings wrote a poem about a girl,

whose least amazing smile is the most great
common divisor of unequal souls.

Nah, that’s Death, e e. Death is the greatest common divisor of everything. It’s what we all have in common. Beyond that fact, I don’t think any two of us look at life and death and Meaning in exactly the same way. And the right answer to all of it may very well be 42.

So I’ve come to suspect that Meaning isn’t rightfully my job; not my department. Please hold while I transfer your call. Honesty is my job, and diligence, and the best craft I can bring to bear. But Meaning is a task for someone else. And here’s a thought that might seem twisted: maybe meaning doesn’t belong to that certain reader who’s asking me to explain. If they’re not finding the Meaning, then the piece has reached the wrong audience. The Meaning belongs to someone I haven’t met and never will. Maybe that’s what Stephen King was getting at.

So despairing of a psychic connection with readers yet unraised, untutored, I have little cause for hope, but that someone years hence finds a scrap of my writing, and it will mean something to her that I can’t even imagine.

“A book, once it is printed and published, becomes individual. It is by its publication as decisively severed from its author as in parturition a child is cut off from its parent. The book “means” thereafter, perforce, — both grammatically and actually, — whatever meaning this or that reader gets out of it.”

– James Branch Cabell

Poetry is Industrious

“It’s easier to understand the idea of death than the reality of life, and so we make an industry of waiting, imagining our end lumbering toward our vain and cubicled selves, inventing the selfish moral blank spots we suspect ourselves of being.”

Michael Thomsen on the vanity of the zombie apocalypse. (Paris Review)

Thomsen was writing about apocalyptic games, but that sure looks like I should be able to relate. Death is the greatest common denominator and poets – and artists in general – have never been able to take their eyes off it for long.